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Police Should Be Locally Accountable

April 10, 2007

Police Should Be Locally Accountable

One of the many historical quirks of my Cities of London and Westminster constituency is its structure of policing. There are forty-three local police constabularies covering the whole of Britain, yet my smaller inner-city seat is served by two. Like many MPs I regularly receive complaints about pol…

Police Should Be Locally Accountable

One of the many historical quirks of my Cities of London and Westminster constituency is its structure of policing. There are forty-three local police constabularies covering the whole of Britain, yet my smaller inner-city seat is served by two. Like many MPs I regularly receive complaints about police action ? or more accurately ? inaction. However in my six years in parliament I have to date received not a single complaint from any of my City of London constituents on these issues. Yet for historical and operational reasons the Square Mile still retains its own independent police force.

When Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern police in the 1820s, set up a structure of policing in the Capital, almost a quarter of London’s population lived in the City of London. As a result it was assigned its own police force, answerable to the City of London Corporation, whilst the rest of the metropolis was served by a body that became the Metropolitan Police.

The City of London Police is the local police force for the 8000 residential population. As an organisation it does a tremendous job ? being receptive to specific local needs as well as playing an important national role in suppressing white collar crime, the threat of terrorism and international fraud.

My remaining constituents, in the City of Westminster, are served by the Metropolitan Police whose reach extends naturally to the whole of the Greater London area. Its Chief Commissioner is appointed by the Home Secretary ? although the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) is answerable to the Mayor of London, there is very little direct accountability that Londoners have on the policing of our streets.

I support David Cameron’s view that ‘the police are the last great unreformed public service’ and I would like to see local residents ? in London and beyond ? being able to influence directly how crime is tackled in their area and even have some power to hire their own officers.

Crime, and the fear of crime, become ever more high profile issues for all of us who live in London. Most of the official statistics paint a picture entirely at odds with every day perception about law and order. Whilst the overall numbers of offences are apparently falling, the fear of crime has become greater than ever. Doubtlessly some of this is down to lurid media coverage of high profile violent criminality. Equally, in my view, there is an increasing disconnect between the police and the people who they are supposed to serve.

In truth, Britain gets pretty poor value for money in the war on crime. Every household in this country spends some £550 per year on law and order ? two thirds of which goes directly to funding the police. As a result, this country is at the top of the spending league when it comes to the proportion of national income spent on tackling crime; yet these increased levels of funding have brought with them little corresponding movement in the levels of arrest and detection. In short, the levels of police productivity continue to fall and the taxpayer is getting insufficient value for money. Overall in Britain we have a record high number of police on the public payroll ? some 140 000. Nevertheless, this is relatively low in proportionate terms by international comparison.

I always very much supported the concept of local accountability rather than central control ? and not just in the area of policing. Nevertheless, my own experience in the City of London is that a locally responsive police force with discretion to deal with the problems of the locality makes a real difference. I recall meeting in Pimlico a Metropolitan Police off-duty officer only a few months ago. He gave me a handful of detailed forms which he as a Constable was expected to complete on making an arrest. Indeed it is estimated that almost twenty percent of an average policeman’s time is consumed by paperwork, with only fourteen percent being spent on patrol. In many ways the Metropolitan Police’s problems are symptomatic of those of many of our other public services ? too much emphasis placed on national targets determined by a controlling central government eager to prove ‘value for money’ rather than allowing for locally accountable leadership and priority-setting.

In addition to reporting the changes in police structure and a greater level of nationalisation of our police, I very much support the Conservative view that directly-elected police commissioners should now replace the police authorities. Only then will there be a direct connection between the public at large and the police. As part of this, here in London I should like to see the Metropolitan Police itself being broken down into much more manageable, localised units. The power of the Commissioner would be to hire and fire police constables who would otherwise retain operational responsibility for day-to-day work.

In the war against crime there is no cause for despondency. We know that improvements can be made. New York is a global city which shares much in common with London. During the 1970s and 1980s New York was regarded as a lawless place with murder, rape and other serious crime commonplace. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who may before too long become the Presidential nominee, took the helm as elected Mayor of New York, he set about changing New York’s appalling record of criminality and unrest. His success in implementing a zero tolerance approach to superficially minor crimes during the 1990s has received widespread, if not necessarily universal, admiration from across the political divide.

It is important that we do not read too much into this. The US has a distinct political culture and its approach to criminal behaviour is less influenced by liberal instincts than here in London. The hard-arm tactics of the NYPD would not be readily tolerated by the public in London. Nevertheless, there are some important lessons to be drawn from New York’s experience. Better police performance there was achieved by a combination of factors ? most importantly a significant increase in police numbers of the street, robust and responsive community policing and powerful reforms to enhance accountability.

Rudolph Giuliani was forthright as an elected Mayor, accountable to his constituents and willing to appoint an inspirational police chief whose watchwords were leadership and innovation. Here in London, we now need to restore the accountability of the police to their own local communities for day-to-day policing. Alongside this, to fight serious crime we need more effective national co-ordination of policing. I truly believe that the City of London Police provides a tremendous template for both aspects of the need for eternal vigilance against the scourge of criminal and antisocial behaviour.